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The Peninsular War

1808 - 1814

1st August 1808.

Mondego Bay, Portugal.

For the last week, an army had been poised, ready to descend on the coast of Portugal. A fleet of military transport vessels containing some of the best units of the British Army, had finally been given the order to disembark.

 

Their commander was a dynamic and energetic general, who had made his name by fighting in India. At the time, he was 39 years old, and was far from a household name, even in Britain. Over the next six years he would fight some of France’s best commanders, never losing a battle, before eventually defeating the Emperor Napoleon himself at Waterloo in Belgium. His name was Sir Arthur Wellesley. History remembers him as the Duke of Wellington, perhaps the greatest commander in British military history.

In This Section

Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington

The conflict which these troops were to take part in is known as the Peninsular War.  For months before the British landing, both Spain and Portugal had been in open revolt against the occupying French forces which were seeking to assert their control on the area. There is a common misconception that the Peninsular War was a contest between the British and French for control of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). The reality is more subtle.

The French were indeed fighting a war of conquest. They had initially intended to force Portugal to bow to France’s will and close its ports to British ships. This was part of a wider policy called the Continental Blockade, which aimed to starve Britain of its trade, and therefore force it to sue for peace to avert an economic catastrophe. Meanwhile, Napoleon had also sought to stab his ally in the back by deposing the Spanish king and placing his own brother, Joseph, on the throne.

As a result, the Spanish and Portuguese were fighting for liberty – freedom from a French regime which sought to control their country. It is more than a little ironic that Napoleon’s enemies were being motivated by an ideal which had been so crucial to the French Revolution.

Britain’s perspective was very different. Although Portugal was an old ally, Spain had been a fierce enemy until Napoleon’s attempt to subdue the nation to his will. As a result, British involvement in the Peninsula was about exploiting another opportunity to fight their adversary. British caricatures praised the way in which Britain ‘aided the cause of freedom around the world’, regardless of whether they were a friend of enemy. However, the government was more pragmatic, and saw the Peninsular War as a theatre where, for the first time in a number of years, the British Army could act decisively to damage Napoleon’s plans.

As a result, the Spanish and Portuguese were fighting for liberty – freedom from a French regime which sought to control their country. It is more than a little ironic that Napoleon’s enemies were being motivated by an ideal which had been so crucial to the French Revolution.

Britain’s perspective was very different. Although Portugal was an old ally, Spain had been a fierce enemy until Napoleon’s attempt to subdue the nation to his will. As a result, British involvement in the Peninsula was about exploiting another opportunity to fight their adversary. British caricatures praised the way in which Britain ‘aided the cause of freedom around the world’, regardless of whether they were a friend of enemy. However, the government was more pragmatic, and saw the Peninsular War as a theatre where, for the first time in a number of years, the British Army could act decisively to damage Napoleon’s plans.

Joseph Bonaparte

The war was, for a number of years, dismissed by experts as a side show of the wider Napoleonic Wars. However, Napoleon himself described the conflict as his ‘Spanish Ulcer’, which drained him of vitally needed men and supplies who could have made a crucial difference in his campaigns elsewhere in Europe.

The Peninsular War left an indelible mark on history. The term guerrilla warfare originates from the bands of Spaniards who carried out hit and run attacks on French supply columns. The war was immortalised in Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s series of books. Most importantly though, it consolidated the reputation of a great military commander, and bolstered the confidence and expertise of the British Army, both of whom would play a vital role in the final titanic struggle against Napoleon at Waterloo.

This section has been broken down into multiple layers. The war itself has been split into phases, but within each phase there are a series of webpages which look at specific campaigns, battles and controversies. Browse through the links under the Peninsular War tab above to find out more.

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